The Dominion Post on July 31, 2014 carried an article by its health reporter discussing the strain on the resources of the Wellington Hospital caused by winter sickness, most notably by the jump in the number of people turning up at the hospital’s emergency department, most of them with flu.
The article noted that in June the hospital had dealt with more than nine out of 10 such patients within six hours of arrival – a government-imposed target for all district health boards – which was a marked improvement from earlier years, but it also reported a claim by a member of staff that one patient had had to wait for more than 18 hours to be seen in the emergency department.

The Complaint
The Capital Coast District Health Board complained that the statement about the 18-hour wait was inaccurate and that the reporter had not checked the allegation (from a single source) with the Board prior to publishing the story. The Board asked the paper to prove the claim. The paper replied that they could not and it was agreed a ‘correction’ was appropriate. The ‘correction’ appeared on August 1 and under the heading Correction it read ‘Wellington Hospital says no patient had to wait 18 hours to be seen in the emergency department last week, contrary to an article yesterday’. The Board then added to their complaint the form of the correction, citing the Council’s principles of Accuracy, Fairness and Balance.

The Newspaper’s Response
The Dominion Post editor, in her response to the complaint, suggested that the Council’s Principle 12 (Corrections) was relevant, and that the paper had made a considerable effort to resolve the matter promptly with the District Health Board ‘in accordance with Council guidelines’. In this case this consisted of publishing both the ‘correction’ and also a letter to the editor from two senior members of the department’s staff. While the District Health Board had gained the impression that the paper was also going to publish an apology the editor stated that at no stage had this been agreed to. On the central point, the statement on the patient’s 18-hour wait, the editor wrote that ‘the staff member did not wish to be identified, for fear of repercussions by the DHB’, adding that ‘the staff member has not resiled from the detail provided’.

The time taken for patients to be seen and attended to in hospital emergency departments has been a live issue for government in recent years and has also been a matter of continuing, often lively, public interest. The system of admission has been standardised across all hospitals to enable a careful audit to be made of whether or to what extent hospitals are meeting the national target for all emergency departments: that they must see, treat and either discharge or admit within six hours 95% of patients who come into the department. The times of the various steps should be recorded and entered into the computer system and the movement of all patients through the hospital, including time spent in the emergency department, is available live to all staff on the intranet. The central issue in judging this complaint is whether the reporter should have included the report of the 18-hour wait without further checking it (Accuracy) and putting it to the DHB for comment (Fairness).
When the District Health Board first complained, the reporter went back to his single source, the ‘anonymous’ staff member, but again apparently took no steps to have it checked against the hospital data. It was this failure which explains the wording of the ‘correction’ – ‘Wellington Hospital says no patient had to wait 18 hours to be seen in the emergency department last week, contrary to an article yesterday’ – which in any real sense is a comment rather than a correction and reflects a failure of the reporter to look more critically at the allegation.
Although the original story reported the marked improvement in the working of the Capital Coast Health emergency department, the ‘18-hour wait’ comment could be seen to reflect extremely badly on the professional skills of the department’s staff. The readers, and the Press Council, are left unclear as to what the comment was based on, how it could have arisen, what if any truth was in it. The ‘correction’ did nothing to clarify the issue.

The Council believes that it is a bad practice to base a report on a single source, particularly when there is no time pressure and ample opportunity to check it. In this respect, all Council members agreed the complaint should be upheld when judged against the Council’s principles of Accuracy and Fairness. Council was divided on whether the newspaper’s response met the Council’s Principle 12 (Corrections). A minority of three Council members thought the correction and readiness to publish the staff letter was adequate, but the majority did not agree and again upheld the complaint.

Press Council members considering the complaint were Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Sandy Gill, Mark Stevens and Stephen Stewart.


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